UK Poet, Philosopher & Artist Ivor Griffiths' Official Website

Anthony and Cleopatra is a Tragedy?

Anthony and Cleopatra is a Tragedy? Scene I Analysis

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will analyse the way in which Act I scene I contributes to the effectiveness of

Antony and Cleopatra as a Tragedy.

In the play we see from the opening scene that the great soldier Antony has been caught between two godheads: on the one hand his duty, that is, his manly responsibilities as one of the triumvirs of

Rome; on the other his pleasure and all consuming infatuation with the Queen of Egypt. The basic question and premise of the play is posed from the opening lines, when Philo is discussing the infatuation that

Antony has for Cleopatra, with Demetrius, he is criticising the great soldier for becoming so infatuated and neglecting his duties. He has been rendered a “strumpets fool”, the basic question then posed by the play is will the strumpet win out or will Antony choose


The main purpose of the opening scene is to make the point that we are picking up the story of

Antony’s fatal love for Cleopatara half-way through. He has already embarked on the cycle of self destruction that marks out a tragedy before the story begins. To that extent the contribution Philo’s speech, in Act one scene one, makes is to tell the audience that we have a great soldier who has fallen for a beautiful woman. However, this woman is a dark character and temptress who is corrupting the hero’s manliness. This in turn is signalling the tragedy that is to follow.

The play was originally produced without act and scene divisions; however, the play divides logically into five acts. The five basic stages of a tragedy can be divided up as follows:

  1. The anticipation stage, this involves the hero’s feelings of incompleteness being satisfied by an object of desire (usually a woman).
  2. The dream stage, in which the hero becomes committed to a course of action which initially goes well; almost as if the hero is able to deal with the two godheads he is been caught between.
  3. The frustration stage is when things begin to go wrong for the hero; in attempting to reconcile the demands of the two godheads he may commit further foolish acts, usually dark deeds involving killing people.
  4. The nightmare stage sees the hero losing control completely, he becomes increasingly desperate and despairing, and one or both of the godheads will close in on him, isolating him further.
  5. The destruction or death wish stage will see the hero either killed by the opposing forces or, as in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, commit suicide. (Booker, C., 2004)

In terms of the complete five-stage cycle of tragedy the play picks up the plot at the frustration stage. The first two acts show Antony making a final effort to fulfil his manly duties by returning to

Rome to deal with Pompey. He even marries Octavius’s sister to reinforce his efforts to regain his Roman identity. He fails of course, the lure of Cleopatra being to strong for

Antony to resist. (

Baldwin T. W., 1963)

Scene one of the first act is providing back story to the plot. It is providing the audience with background information. A great soldier has been rendered “womanish” by Cleopatra. We are informed of the character of this woman in the opening speech. Furthermore his heart which once would “burst the buckles on his breast” is now nothing more than “the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust”. We are immediately informed that

Antony is going to suffer because of his involvement with this dark character of Cleopatra. Female sexual desire is portrayed as being so threatening to a man and so powerful that even a great soldier like Antony is reduced to a fool by it, he is portrayed as having become womanly, a negative state in the play.

As the scene proceeds the two main characters are discussing their love, the opening line from Cleopatra “If it be love indeed, tell me how much”, in other words, prove it. This informs the audience that we are now at the frustration stage.

Antony will now be forced to choose between the two godheads. This is further reinforced when they are interrupted by an attendant advising them that there is news from Rome, Antony cannot be bothered to deal with it, he is absorbed by Cleopatra.: “grates me, the sum”, he is offended and wants the news to be brief. Cleopatra then taunts him by belittling his sense of duty to

Rome as if it is an alternative only for his love for her. The audience are again being told in the dialogue that Antony is dealing with a woman who is going to make him choose between her and


Antony reassures Cleopatra by stating:

“let Rome in

Tiber melt, and the wide arch

Of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space…..”

This is a clear indication that Antony is not necessarily going to choose

Rome. He then discusses with Cleopatra what they are going to do that night, a clear indication that it will be erotic as it was the previous night: “Come, my queen, last night you did desire it.” Thus the scene is set for the remainder of the tragedy. It is clear that

Antony has become involved with a woman that will cause his downfall. This is achieved in this scene by way of back story. Cleopatra signals her jealousy of Rome when she questions

Antony’s love. We are already aware of the fact that Demetrius and Philo view the relationship negatively from

Antony’s point of view as he has become more womanish. Womanliness is portrayed from the first scene of the play as negative and this reinforced later on in the play when Cleopatra is referred to as a whore; Caesar informs Octavia of the whereabouts of her husband by stating:

”Cleopatra hath nodded him to her.

He hath given his empire up to a whore”.

Antony’s inability to resist the charms, and his love, of a dark temptress, in the guise of Cleopatra, is the essence of the tragedy that unfolds. The unwillingness of

Rome to allow him to succumb to his desires is the other godhead that he is torn between. Scene I of Act I, contributes to the play’s effectiveness as a tragedy by telling the audience immediately that a once great warrior has been virtually emasculated by the affections of a lustful whore (Callaghan D., 2001); furthermore that he is ignoring his duty to

Rome and because of this there will be conflict and tension. The scene allows the play to conform to the five classic stages of tragedy with the use of back story to provide details of the first two stages. This is repeated in the play, for example, when Enobarbus recalls the time when Antony first saw the temptress Cleopatra when he arrived in

Egypt, describing the beauty and desirability of Cleopatra, reinforcing the theme of the play that female sexual desire is potentially a destructive force for men.


Callaghan D., 2001, A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Booker C., 2004, The Seven Basic Plots, Why we tell stories,

London, Continuum

Ridley M. R., 1954, The Arden Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra, Ninth Edition,

London, Metheun & Co. Ltd.

Barton A., 1994, Essays Mainly Shakespearean, Cambridge,


University Press

Andrews, J F., ed., 1993, William Shakespeare:

Antony and Cleopatra.

London, J. M. Dent,

Baldwin, T. W., 1963, Shakespeare’s Five–Act Structure, Urbana, Illinois,

University of

Illinois Press.

Charney, M., 1963, Shakespeare’s Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in
the Drama
. Cambridge, USA,


University Press.